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8 December 2021updated 09 Dec 2021 1:54pm

Anthony Barnett

My return to reading, the white working class, and an adieu to Rosemary Bechler

The issues of democracy and nationalism have never felt so urgent.

The pleasure of finalising a book written under pressure is that you can start to read other people’s. The first I turned to is by my friend Henry Porter. The Old Enemy is the third of his fast-paced and utterly modern Paul Sampson series of thrillers. My favourite character is the brilliant young, techy Syrian refugee, known as Firefly.

Then I read Natasha Brown’s Assembly. It has a lasting, poetic impact. She draws you in to her experience of race and class in the City of London and a country estate – pinnacles of financial achievement and social supremacy. “I reject it… Even up here… the thumping nationalism of this place.” It’s superb, taut and compelling.

Now I’m reading my neighbour Chris Davies’s brilliant Avoidance – a novel drawn from his unique family archive that reflects on the forgotten financial crash of 1873.

Class struggles

Best of all has been Tommy Sissons’ A Small Man’s England. Like Brown, he takes on race, class and nationalism, but from below, in a work of true originality. Finally, a left-wing argument rooted in the desire of white working-class men for personal agency.

Sissons writes about himself with masterly assurance. In part this is thanks to Goldsmiths, University of London, where Sissons studied – a unique institution whose management seems committed to a despicable strategy of closing down the very humanities that ensured Sissons could develop his voice. All support to the strike action to prevent this.

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A Small Man’s England combines a deceptively simple call for a socialist politics with passages of stunning fiction exploring the emotional realities of working-class life. Sissons engages big themes: extremism, criminality, masculinity, race, education, respect, community. Working-class boys often leave school at 16 without a job, unable to draw adult benefits until they are 18. A two-year vortex opens up from which many fail to return. Brought up to feel worthless, they treat others as worthless too, and seek significance in crime or fascism. To reverse this, “the white working-class boy must be spoken with not spoken to”. Exactly so.

The Scottish Question

As Sissons shows, the left needs to identify with England – an imperative that fills many with revulsion. Can Scottish independence come to our rescue by ending the United Kingdom? The hope that it might is one reason I support Europe for Scotland. So far 12,800 people from every European country have signed our petition calling for EU leaders to make a just and inclusive initiative and offer Scotland generous terms to rejoin. I’ve been talking with the campaign’s Italian and German organisers, Andrea Pisauro and Nina Jetter, about whether Emmanuel Macron, Mario Draghi or now Olaf Scholz could be the first to break the ice.

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Starmer onwards?

Can Team Starmer provide a way to free England from its corruptions? Unlikely, under its chosen banner “Make Brexit work”. Should Boris Johnson become an election loser, the Tories will replace him with Liz Truss. Being insane enough to believe in Brexit, she will call an election – and win, as the authentic beats the contrived every time.

Brexit is like a supernova. In 2016 the Great British sun emitted a huge pulse of democratic energy and is now turning into a black hole sucking everything into its dark gravity. Such a breakdown cannot “work”. Replacement is the only course and when even Ken Clarke says we need a written constitution, it is a matter of time.

Rosemary Bechler’s legacy

I loved to argue about these issues of democracy and nationalism with Rosemary Bechler. Her death in late November after a horrible illness cast a pall over the 20th anniversary of openDemocracy. Four of us came together in a garage in Tufnell Park, north London, in 2001 to plan its launch. Rosemary joined soon after. Her commitment to pluralism opened the site to new voices and made her its “soul”. She agreed to an extraordinary last conversation. Assisted by oxygen, she told Adam Ramsay and me:

“Unlike much of the left I’m not 0bsessed with the truth, with having it, saying it, spelling it out. My first point of interest is the relationship: who is the speaker, who are they speaking to, what kind of relationship do they have, and what can happen between them. That can make for something better and richer and more complex…”

She’d have enjoyed A Small Man’s England.

Context is everything

Twenty years ago we were politically alone when we took to the sea of cyberspace in the sieve of a website. Our aim was to resist the mental asphyxiation of New Labour. We might have failed but for 9/11, when we abandoned our print-epoch fortnightly approach, went daily and hosted a global exchange. From then on, openDemocracy became of the web rather than just on it. The 9/11 attacks were critical in more important ways too. Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell’s mendacity began the process that led to Brexit and Boris Johnson, while Dick Cheney and George W Bush’s occupation of Iraq initiated the catastrophe that led to Donald Trump. Now, we have entered the whirlpool of democracy’s survival. Happy Christmas!

Anthony Barnett’s “Taking Control! Humanity and America after Trump and the Pandemic” will be published by Repeater Books in March 2022

[See also: The English Question: who are we now, after Brexit, in these pandemic times?]

This article appears in the 09 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special